Daily Archives: February 2, 2007

Changing Communities, Changing Controversies

Linda Sue Park has just written on her blog about a situation in a suburban Boston middle school involving the use of Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ So Far from the Bamboo Grove in a language arts unit. The Boston Globe article about the controversy can be read here.

Linda Sue also also raised the issue on child_lit where I’ve just posted the following:

I think this was an accident waiting to happen. As communities continue to shift and change I anticipate more such controversies. And I think it is related to my oft-voiced and controversial contention that not only do works of historical fiction taught in classrooms need ample historical context , but that when they do involve crimes against humanity that these would be better addressed in history classrooms rather than English classrooms.

If the lesson was on autobiographical writing (according to J.L. Bell on child_lit) and if the population of the school has shifted and the book is now offensive to members of that population for very personal reasons then I suggest that a different book should be used for the English lesson and the controversial book be shifted to a unit in the students’ history curriculum where it would be looked at in all the ways it needs to be looked at. I cannot see how it could be used effectively as an example of autobiographical writing for students of Korean heritage if it is personally offensive to them. Just as I could not imagine teaching Little House in the Big Woods if my class included children of Native American heritage.

Years ago I started a thread here about an assembly at my school that included some scenes from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado which I had not know would be included and which distressed our Japanese students quite a bit. At the least I wanted to have been able to prepare them for it, but having not been forewarned could not. In my opinion, someone could have asked the opera company to either explain the scenes before doing them or skip them entirely given our school’s population.

Curriculum has to change all the time. It has to adjust to the
specific populations of a school and community. If this particular
community has changed and now includes those who have personal experience with this historical time then I think the community has been absolutely right in their efforts to grapple with it this way. I very much can imagine that children may well have been bullied and comments made that were offensive by other children out of limited understanding.

I’ve written here and elsewhere before of my feeling that the
Holocaust should be taught as history and not within English classes for similar reasons. Historians consider the past differently from literary scholars; there are different ways of doing so that students need to learn. Particularly when considering horrific historical topics like the one Watkins explores in her fictionalized autobiography. These would be better considered in history classrooms rather than within an English unit meant to address one aspect of the craft of writing.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Reading, Teaching, Writing